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Harper revives bid for eight-year cap on Senate terms Add to ...

His grip on the Upper House tightening, Stephen Harper is reviving his campaign to reform the Senate - efforts that could spark a battle with provinces over where the authority lies to remake Parliament.

Legislation the Conservatives introduced in the Commons Monday proposes to limit senators to a single term of eight years, the first of two bills the Tories plan on the matter.

In an effort to increase the chances this legislation succeeds, the government is signalling privately and publicly that it may be willing to bend on the new term limits, which Liberal senators have previously suggested should be 12 to 15 years instead.

"It's not our way or the highway," one Tory official said of the approach to the bill.

Senate reform is a signature project for Mr. Harper, a onetime Reformer whose minority Conservative government recently gained control of a plurality of seats in the chamber - leaving the Liberals in second place there.

Regardless of whether he succeeds, the fight is important for the Prime Minister, who has already used his office to appoint more than 30 unelected senators - some of them political organizers or fundraisers. He must demonstrate to his populist base that he is still committed to reform.

But it may be a steep uphill climb if premiers insist that what Mr. Harper is proposing requires the consent of two-thirds of provinces representing half the population. A string of provinces including Quebec and Ontario have already registered objections and could end up taking Ottawa to court.

Currently senators can be appointed when they're as young as 30 years of age and serve until they are 75 years old.

"Canadians are rightly questioning how senators with no democratic mandate can serve terms for up to 45 years," said Steven Fletcher, the Conservative minister of state for democratic reform. He said the Tories believe Parliament has the purview to pass term limits without a constitutional amendment.

The proposed eight-year cap would affect all senators taking office since October 2008, the last election.

It's the fourth version of this bill for Mr. Harper who, despite his avowed commitment to Senate reform, has killed all previous legislation on the topic either by proroguing Parliament or calling an election.

The NDP said they likely will back the legislation in the Commons even though they would prefer to abolish the Senate. NDP democratic reform critic David Christopherson said his party wants to see if there are "any surprises" in the bill at committee.

"If it goes the way it looks, we'll support it only because there's no real argument not to," Mr. Christopherson said. "Having an unelected person there, it's probably better that they're only there eight years instead of 15 or 20."

The Conservatives, however, are planning a second bill to make appointments of senators more democratic. This legislation would lay out a selection process to consult Canadians directly in choosing future senators, but avoid a direct-election scheme. This indirect system is another way the Tories believe they can avoid the need to obtain the constitutionally mandated approval of the provinces.

The Tories can't count on Liberal support in the Senate, where Liberal senators still hold 49 of 105 seats. Senator James Cowan, the Liberal Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, said he can't see his party backing the bill in the Upper House. " I don't know how we can support it in the face of the evidence we have. The evidence I heard is that you cannot make a change like this by simple act of Parliament. You require seven provinces representing fifty per cent of the population."

But with 51 Senate seats, the Tories have at least a chance of unilaterally pushing the legislation through the Upper House, where they recently assumed control of committees. Because of illnesses and absences among Liberals and Independents, the Conservatives were already winning votes in the Senate last fall.

Follow on Twitter: @stevenchase

 

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